By Joseph Robertia
The temperatures are cool, the views haven’t yet been obstructed by the lush foliage that will soon grow in, and hikers are still a few weeks away from practicing the Alaska salute of waving their hands around their heads to drive off mosquitoes. Spring is here and outdoors enthusiasts are taking to the rapidly greening wilderness.
“It’s just great after a long winter,” said Anna Moran, of Soldotna, on Saturday, while taking in the surroundings from halfway up Skyline Trail, located along the Sterling Highway in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
It had taken Moran more than an hour to make it to where she was. Her heart was pounding, her brow sweaty and her legs were tired and heavy from the long uphill slog. Still, she was smiling wide.
Part of it was due to the sun shining high and bright in the blue, nearly cloudless sky. The visibility seemed endless. Mounts Illiamna, Redoubt and Spurr could be seen on the horizon, and McKinley and Foraker even farther in the distance.
“When you look around, you know, this is what Alaska is all about,” Moran said.
Part of her happiness came from sharing the experience, since Moran had teamed up with her friend, Deb Nyquist, of Kenai, as part of celebrating Mother’s Day a little early. Their teenaged children, more fit and agile in their youth, were a knob of elevation higher at any given time.
“It’s been great,” Moran said. “The kids even kind of wait for us.”
To be fair to the two moms, Skyline Trail is no easy stroll. Most guidebooks, such as Helen Nienhueser and Nancy Simmerman’s book, “55 Ways to the Wilderness in SouthCentral Alaska,” list the trail as moderate to strenuous. Nyquist said she didn’t mind the vertical ascent, though.
“If you’re not going up,” she said, “you’re not hiking. You’re walking.”
Starting on the north side of the Sterling Highway just east of Mile 61, the trail begins to climb almost immediately from the trailhead at 450 feet of elevation, and it just keeps going up.
At the lower elevations, berry bushes and other foliage of the forest floor are already flushing with freshly sprouted green leaves, while the larger spruce, birch and cottonwoods — some of incredible girth — still only bear buds at the tips of their branches. This makes for some impressive views to the south just a few tenths of a mile into the hike,
where hikers looking over their shoulder can see the shimmering waters of Jean Lake, and the much larger Skilak Lake beyond that.
Roughly a quarter of the way into the already arduous endeavor, hikers will encounter an even more difficult obstacle: a wide, very steep section of exposed dirt. Even in dry weather this terrain can be tricky, but with the ground still soggy from melting snow higher up, there is little on which to get a foothold. As a result, there are plentiful skids, slide marks and other telltale signs of hikers who either peeled out on the way up or wiped out on the way down.
This mud section is easier to negotiate with the use of trekking poles or a hiking stick, and these items are particularly warranted as the trail winds higher. The tall trees begin to thin out, replaced by large thickets of willow, scratchy, knee-high brush and, as of last weekend, more than a foot of consolidated snow that, in the warm midday sun, turns to the consistency of mashed potatoes. Post-holing is occasional, yet inevitable. Leg gaiters would greatly benefit hikers who don’t want to cut up their shins or have boots filled with stale ice.
Most guidebooks list Skyline as a little more than mile in length, which can be a bit deceiving. A mile up brings hikers to a somewhat level saddle area, roughly 1,800 feet in elevation, with still more willow and some mountain hemlock. This is also a windy area where a light coat or sweater may be necessary to avoid exhaustion hypothermia, since most hikers will have worked up a sweat on the way to this point.
However, this isn’t the end for anyone pushing to the summit. The true top for many hikers is still another mile up at 3,295 feet in elevation.
After crossing the saddle, the trail again begins to ascend. The mushy snow is intermittently broken up by large swaths of rocks and rust-colored scree. Up this high in the alpine zone, it’s mostly grasses, sedges, lichen and lime-colored moss for flora. There is also an occasional misshapen mountain hemlock growing wider than taller, an effect of the harsh area in which it lives.
“I like being above tree line a lot, and the view here is classic,” said Mary King, of Soldotna, out Saturday with her hiking partner, a golden retriever named Katie.
King is a regular to Skyline, and she said she has seen a lot of animals while hiking the trail.
“I’ve seen black bears down in the valley on the front side of the mountain, and brown bears walking the ridge up high,” she said. “I’ve also seen herds of Dall sheep, wolf tracks, and lots of grouse and ptarmigan.”
King said she relishes the natural splendor offered by Skyline, so much so that in addition to hiking it throughout the spring, summer and fall, she even straps on crampons to keep climbing in winter.
“I do this hike year-round,” she said. “It’s a steep climb, so it’s a good workout. The view is awesome. It’s also kind of a quiet, meditative climb. From the top, there’s almost no sound from the road below, so you can just clear your mind.”
Hikers will know they’re at the true top of the mountain when they reach a large cairn of piled rocks. There are two cairns roughly 50 yards apart. The first pile of rocks has at its base a memorial plaque to Arthur F. Watson Sr. who, according to the inscription, was, “A great man, husband, father and grandfather.”
At the base of the other cairn is a bright orange, plastic ammunition box, which holds a sign-in registry for the hike. This registry can make for interesting reading as other hikers tell their tales of what it took to get to the top and what they saw along the way. Occasionally, artistic hikers doodle a picture of the view through their eyes.
Hikers who spot something rare may make a note of it, such as the entry by “Earthdog” on Oct. 17, 2009: “Had company on the way up. Saw one lone wolf sitting on the rocks, watching me. As I got close, he just vanished like a ghost.”
There are also many entries dealing with the weather on a particular date, such as the one written by “Overturf” on Jan. 12 that stated: “Big wind! Big Cold! It’s an everything day, as in wear everything you brought.”
This box also occasionally holds bits of “trail magic” — such as fruit, candy bars or other snacks — left by the last hiker for the next one up.
Anyone that hikes Skyline regularly likely has or will meet Bob Summer, of Soldotna, who hikes with his black Labrador mix named Riley. After falling in love with the hike while accompanying a friend back in 1995, he has hiked Skyline at least once a week whenever he was able for the past 15 years. Summer said he has seen a lot of unique items in the box, as well as unusual events on the top during that time.
“I’ve seen rings, necklaces, money, bullets, a lot of student IDs as proof the kids made it, and there were a lot of memorial programs of people for a while,” he said. “There have been a lot of spiritual happenings up here, too. I’ve seen engagements and weddings, and people who have found God up here. It’s really wild.”
Summer is an eighth-grade teacher at Kenai Middle School. He said he often uses the solitude of Skyline to think about his lesson plans for the coming week. On Saturday he was hoping to come down from his hike with a graduation speech, after being invited to speak at the commencement ceremony for Kenai Central High School.
“I’ve got an idea in my head, and you’re just thinking the whole time you hike, so I’m hoping to work on it,” he said.
Summer also is a cancer survivor, who turned to mountaineering after a particularly close call with the disease. In 2007 he coordinated and participated in a climb of Mount Aspiring in New Zealand to raise money for children affected by cancer and his regular treks up Skyline got him in shape for the much larger peak.
“It’s a good training hike,” he said.
When it’s not too windy, the top can be a great place to enjoy lunch while taking in views of the Mystery Hills and the Kenai Mountains. Hikers can see clouds at eye level or look down on small planes flying by.
Summer said he always aims for the top, but with such an exposed summit, sometimes the weather hinders him from making it all the way.
“I have a three-knockdown rule,” he said. “If I get knocked down three times on the way up, I turn around.”
Hiking Skyline regularly could leave some to believe Summer’s interest would wane, but he said he never tires of the uphill adventure.
“It’s just a cool place,” he said. “Every time I hike it, the experience is different.”
For more information on hiking Skyline Trail, consult USGS maps quads Kenai B-1 and C-1, or call the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at 262-7021.